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13th century cat- and goat-hide shop

13th century cat- and goat-hide shop excavated in England


People wore domestic cat fur clothing in medieval England, and archaeologists may have found a site where such leather was produced in the 13 th century.

Archaeologists digging in Norwich, England, have found a leather shop that processed goats, possibly for parchment documents, and cats, possibly for small items of apparel such as hats. Bones and horns of cattle were also found.

Tower of St Peter Parmentergate, which is near the newly discovered tannery site in Norwich

Tower of St Peter Parmentergate, which is near the newly discovered tannery site in Norwich (Wikimedia Commons photo by Poliphilo)

EDP24 reports archaeologists are working on the site of a proposed parking garage to determine whether developers will be allowed to go forward with it or if it the site is too sensitive historically.

“The cat bones in the assemblage are of interest, especially the cut juvenile bone.” says the archeologists’ report. “It is quite possible that cats were also providing skins and fur at this site – a common practice in medieval Britain and one that has been seen in Norwich.

“There is the possibility that the cat fur could have made small items or contributed to other garments being produced, e.g. fur trims to leather gloves or hats.”

They have found many goat horn cores (bones at the center of horns), suggesting there was a high-quality leather-tawing operation there. They speculate the tawery and tannery may have supplied leather and parchment to two nearby friaries, where monks may have used the vellum to write and record documents. A tawer deals with skins other than cattle; tanners make leather from cattle hides using tannic acid from oak bark.

“And, with the site close to the river and near two friary sites, archaeologists are wondering whether the site might have served monks, producing high-quality leather items and vellum - a parchment used for scrolls and books,” says EDP24, an online British publication.

13th century vellum manuscript made of goatskin showing King Arthur

13th century vellum manuscript made of goatskin showing King Arthur (Wikimedia Commons image)

Taweries and tanneries needed to be close to a water source because so much water is used in preparing leather.

The county archaeologist, David Gurney, speaking to EDP24, shed some light on the milieu of Norwich in the 13the century:

“It is a very interesting site. By this time there are lots of people living within the city walls, but you still get places like this being used for quite unpleasant activities.
“These activities would have been very smelly, noxious and quote dangerous, with urine or lime used to remove the hair or allowing it to rot for several months. You wouldn’t have wanted to live next door to it!

“We know that from the late 13th century there were more than 120 different crafts and trades going on in Norwich and leather working gets mentioned quite a lot.”

Medieval tannery excavated at City of Caves in Nottingham

Medieval tannery excavated at City of Caves in Nottingham (Wikimedia Commons photo by Mutt)

The leather industry was very important in medieval England, says the Collegiate Journal of Anthropology. Leather makers provided shoes and gloves for daily wear, saddles and harnesses for the farm, and scabbards and armor for soldiers, and bellows and wineskins for the home.

Cattle hides were readily available because they were butchered for meat. Tanners had sole right to buy the hides, and this may be why the tanning industry expanded rapidly, the journal says.

The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology’s article focused on tanneries, not goat-, cat- and other animal-tawing sites. It concludes that it may have been unpleasant to live near tanneries, which were ordered to leave forests and set up shop in boroughs, but it was an essential industry because leather was such an important part of daily life. “Even in today’s society in which we have an abundance of a variety of materials at our disposal, leather still proves to be as popular as ever,” the article states. “This perhaps helps to emphasize just how essential a medieval tanner must have been in the Middle Ages, when fewer options were available.”

The blog named Medieval says that in tawing, the hide was soaked in water with potash, salt and alum. Flour and egg yolk were sometimes added to improve the product, which was not really leather because it was not tanned and could rot or become putrescent. “Skins of sheep, goat, pig and deer were processed by a tawer (also known as a tawyer or whittawer),” Medieval says.

Featured image: Red and yellow dyed goat hides drying in the sun in the medina of the Moroccan city Fes. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Mark Miller

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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